The national drive towards reform of the benefits system has been gathering momentum over the past 18 months, with the pace stepping up from January when the Conservative party released ‘Work for Welfare’, a short proposal for some pretty draconian reforms to the current welfare state where all ‘able bodied’ men and women would be expected to work (the fact that one in four claimants of incapacity benefit are severely mentally ill clearly does not register with tory stiff-upper-lippers). Hot on the heels of this report came Purnell’s green paper, the rather more progressively titled ‘No One Written Off: Reforming Welfare to Reward Responsibility.’ Cue a tiresome little inter-party squabble with a lot of bitchy back-handing to the BBC over just whose idea it was to bring the British welfare system into the 21st century.
On first reading, both reports advocate a greater emphasis on individuals taking responsibility for and ‘earning’ their own benefits; both want to encourage more people into work and provide better checks to do so; both want a clearer distinction between the genuinely needy and those relatively able to work, those whom a medieval government might have called ‘sturdy beggars’. The net effect of the reforms is that in October 2008 a new Employment and Support Allowance will be introduced for new claimants of Incapacity Benefit and other benefits before being rolled out to all recipients.
There, the similarity between the proposals ends. It must be made absolutely clear that Purnell’s green paper treads an extremely fine line between positive reforms that empower people to work and victimisation and further isolation of already poor and vulnerable sections of society. For now, in the months pre-instigation, the proposals come through relatively successfully, with welcome additions such as a long-overdue simplification of the benefits claiming system, making it easier for genuinely needy claimants to access vital support. Until you’ve sat up with a severely physically and emotionally disable friend and watched them crying in frustration as they try to fill out the forms, you may not understand quite how vital this particular change is. The old system was designed to be complex in order to discourage fraudsters from bothering; the new system will build in more proactive checks. And about bloody time too.
The tory proposals, on the other hand, are replete with the rhetoric of disdain for the poor and needy. In the conservative worldview, people need to be stopped at all costs from ‘playing the system’; the government has a ‘moral right’ to ‘protect families’, the practical upshot of which is tax benefits for married couples, as if a silver ring ever solved anything. Quite apart from the fact that Labour’s report is massively longer and more in-depth, quite apart from the fact that it answers the conservative challenge with the diligence of a progressive government purposefully handling the difficulties of practical power, we cannot – simply cannot – have tory hardliners like Chris Grayling in charge of this delicate transitional period in the benefits system.
This welfare reform package is one that can only be successfully implemented by a socially aware, self-policing socialist party of the type that, at its best, Labour tries to be. Conservatives such as Grayling have claimed that Purnell’s proposals are a ‘straight lift’ from tory plans; they are not. If anything, the latest proposals represent a visionary re-working of a policy which, under the Tories, would further criminalise the working classes and drive hundreds of thousands into poverty, debt, addiction and despair.
Because the tories have far less idea even than the incumbent government of what real poverty really means. You can’t say ‘credit crunch’ with out baring your teeth into a snarl, and it’s going for the throat of benefit recipients trying to live on £40 per week. MPs demonstrating ‘belt-tightening’ by not demanding increases on their sixty grand salaries live in an entirely different world from people on JSA and Incapacity Benefit. The welfare state was never designed, as the tories claim, to allow ‘a young man to grow up’ knowing that ‘the state will support him’ whatever choices he makes: if you live on benefits, you are poor. Very poor, and you’ll stay poor unless your circumstances change. A life lived on benefits is a life on the breadline, a life replete with stress and starved of reward and acheivement, a life in many respects half-lived. The vast majority of people on state benefits are keen to return to work – the problem, is that many face tremendous obstacles in obtaining and retaining employment.
The conservatives’ mantra of small government, of decreasing state support in every arena in favour of ‘the family,’ will be massively detrimental to the real good that has been done in moving millions of people off benefits and over the poverty line in the past decade. David Cameron believes that:
‘The primary institution in our lives is the family. It looks after the sick, cares for children and the elderly, supports working people and the unemployed’ –
Woah there. Reading between the lines, doesn’t that mean that families should be doing the work of the state, just like they did in the pre-industrial era? Well, presumably they’re planning to reward domestic work financially, then, aren’t they, and take massive social steps to encourage social cohesiveness within all family structures, and provide equal benefits for civilly-partnered homosexual couples and married straight couples alike? No? Or, just for instance here, could it be another strategy to shove vital care structures such as ‘caring for children and the elderly, supporting working people and the unemployed’ out into the streets in order to save money? We’ve heard this one before. It was called ‘Care in the Community.’
Oh, yes. And tucked away in the pages of ‘Work for Welfare’ are some really juicy howlers, such as:
‘Equal pay audits will apply only to those firms which lose pay discrimination cases’.
Which is a logical and VITAL part of making the welfare state work for everyone, clearly. Only a progressive socialist government has the tenacity and social responsibility to make welfare reform work: we must work now to avoid handing a fledgling system based on ‘rights and responsibilities’ over to the tories, who will never understand in our lifetimes what it really means to be poor, sick and desperate.